on-line contest

What's New

Most Popular


Story and photos by

We first viewed Robben Island from Table Mountain, Cape Town. Flat as a coin and almost as circular, the five-kilometer-long island is khaki and drab. Steel blue Atlantic waves lash its shores just 12 kilometers north of the city.

Lookout tower and barbed wire-topped wall in prison
Lookout tower and barbed wire-topped wall in prison
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Robben means "seal" in Dutch. In the 16th and 17th centuries, seals and penguins, on the island, provided food for passing Dutch East India Company sailors. Between 1840 and 1930, lepers and mental patients were banished to its shores.

Nelson Mandela

The Department of Correctional Services turned Robben Island into a jail for political dissidents in 1960. Here is where President Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison.

The last prisoners left in 1996 and, a year later, the Department of Arts, Science, Culture and Technology took it over.

In 1999, Robben Island became a World Heritage site. Today, former prisoners lead many of the tours. The experience is both moving and enlightening.

Cape Town waterfront

Salty spray splashed the windows of our ferry as it made the 25-minute crossing from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, in Cape Town, to Robben Island Museum. A road, lined with cacti, led us through a gate bearing the sign: "Robben Island. We serve with pride."

Coils of barbed wire outline the tops of walls and buildings. As with the equally notorious prisons, Alcatraz and Devil's Island, escape was next to impossible. The distance to the mainland was too far to swim. Sharks patrol the frigid Atlantic waters. And waves can be rough.

Visitors enter prison gate under the sign: 'Robben Island. We serve with pride.'
Visitors enter prison gate under the sign:
"Robben Island. We serve with pride."
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Robben Island tours

Dr. Patrick Matanjana greeted us in front of a long, low barrack-like building with a corrugated tin roof and bars in the windows. "I was arrested in 1967, when I was 19 years old, and sentenced here for 20 years," he said, matter-of-factly.

We walked along grey corridors, illuminated with bare lightbulbs. Pointing out the warden's room, Matanjana remarked: "Here they took our clothing and money and gave us prison clothes and a number."

Wardens assigned prisoners to groups. "Sections A and B were maximum security individual cells, section C was solitary confinement, while sections D to G were communal," he explained. "Section A prisoners had the most privileges. They could receive 30 letters a year as well as visitors."

Dr. Patrick Matanjana, a prisoner at Robben Island for 20 years, now leads tours.
Dr. Patrick Matanjana, a prisoner at Robben Island for 20 years, now leads tours.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Censored and smuggled letters

Letters were a mixed blessing, as we learned when Matanjana described the Censor Office. "Staff read both ingoing and outgoing mail. If they didn't like a sentence, they'd cut it out. Sometimes we'd receive a letter with only the address and signature left, held together by cello tape."

But this wasn't the worst part. "Certain people in the office specialized in forging handwriting. Prisoners would receive letters from their wives saying 'I'm divorcing you because I can't stay with a man who's going to be in prison for 20 years.' Only later did we learn they were lies."

To learn if these letters were forgeries, inmates had to speak to someone in A section who could smuggle out a letter with a visitor. The problem was that group A prisoners weren't allowed to speak to the others. Wardens built a wall between them.

"We found ways to communicate," noted Matanjana. "During exercise breaks, we played tennis. By opening a ball, we could insert a note, tape it together and hit it over the wall. The wardens thought we were lousy shots."

Smuggling letters also took place on Sundays when the priest came, according to our guide. "When he opened his Bible and said 'Let us pray,' everyone cast their eyes down. That's when the person next to him would put a letter in the Bible. The priest would close the book and walk out with it. Because he was considered a holy man, no one searched him."

Nelson Mandela's cell

Rows of stark, cold cells lined the next corridor. Nelson Mandela was in Cell #5. It contains a bowl, a spoon, a plate, cupboards, a bucket and a neatly-folded blanket. No bed.

"We didn't get beds until 1974, after a serious struggle," Matanjana recalled. "One prisoner died from double pneumonia, so we went on a hunger strike for seven days. The Minister of Justice ignored us, but finally the Red Cross intervened and persuaded him to give us beds."

A black and white photo of the prison courtyard, in the mid-60s, shows prisoners mending clothing and cracking rocks.
A black and white photo of the prison courtyard, in the mid-60s, shows prisoners mending clothing and cracking rocks.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Guards would punish prisoners for minor transgressions like not folding their blankets properly. "Depending on the warden and the incident, they'd put us in strait jackets and beat us, or take away our books."

Books? "Yes, we smuggled them in. We had to avoid the situation where we just worked, ate and slept, otherwise our minds would rust," said Matanjana. "Besides, studying helped us concentrate on other things, rather than missing our wives and children."

Earn university degree

Robben Island became an institution of higher learning. "Of the 1,500 prisoners who came here, some were doctors, others were lawyers and professors. Still others were illiterate. We taught each other," stated our guide with pride. "We even taught some wardens to read and write.

"Every day, we had a study session. After dividing prisoners into groups of three, we delegated each group to research a country. They had to tell us everything about it from the political system to the religion.

We'd ask questions, so they had to be knowledgeable. If we disagreed during discussions, they'd go back and research the topic again to see who was right. In spite of the hardships, many of us earned university degrees. Some earned two or three."

Our tour group passed the dining room. "For breakfast, they gave us each a bowl of porridge and a cup of brown sugar. We couldn't have white sugar because our skins were black," he added.

Paved walkway to barbed wire-covered building and lookout tower in prison
Paved walkway to barbed wire-covered building and lookout tower in prison
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The concrete showers, at the end of the hall, originally only had cold water. "We had to go on strike to get hot water. When it arrived we had to get up very early to shower before it ran out."

Limestone quarries

After boarding buses for the second part of the tour, we drove by several tombstones. Our guide explained that the 1,500 graves, partially hidden by grass, belonged to the lepers who were exiled here for nearly 100 years.

We stopped at the quarries where prisoners cut limestone to make into building and painting materials. "It wasn't the work that was so hard, but the glaring light reflecting off the stone," he explained.

"Prisoners weren't allowed to wear sunglasses. Many became semi-blind and very sensitive to light." (Mandela worked here for 13 years. His aides ask photographers to refrain from using flashes, which hurt his eyes.)

As we passed the houses and school, built for the wardens and their families, our guide wistfully noted: "As prisoners, we longed to see and hear children. Inmates who had windows in their cells had a big advantage. They could hear the laughter of children."

African penguins

Birds, of 132 species, also provided welcome sounds. On the coast, black and white African penguins (originally called jackass penguins) sunned themselves on the beach, for as far as our eyes could see.

"Because the Dutch used to eat them, they almost became extinct. Now, they number close to 10,000," noted our guide as we observed them from a wooden hide. (Visitors are not allowed on the beach because oyster-catchers lay their eggs between the rocks.)

Coils of barbed wire top wall around prison.
Coils of barbed wire top wall around prison.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In 1997, Hilary Clinton toured Robben Island. So did Bill Cosby. Mandela has returned six times since he left in 1982. He stays at Governors House, which is now a small guest home and conference centre.

End of apartheid

On our way out, we asked Matanjana why he showed no bitterness about his stay at Robben Island. Without hesitation, he replied: "I'm happy today because I achieved what I was fighting for. Apartheid is gone and it won't come back. It's a victory not just for me, but for everyone."

And how did he feel about the wardens who imprisoned him? "Today we talk and we even drink together. You cannot correct something wrong by doing wrong. Fighting doesn't build. It destroys. Since we're creating the foundation for the next generation, we want to make it a strong one."

Then, and only then, did we realize that Robben Island, is much more than a museum of coiled barbed wire and barren cells. It's a monument to the triumph of freedom, dignity and determination over humiliation and oppression. Nelson Mandela and Patrick Matanjana are two prime examples.


Robben Island Museum: www.robben-island.org.za

More South Africa information:

Sun City - South Africa Resort, Waterpark and Casino

South Africa Cheetah Encounters and Conservation

Protea Hotel near First Post Office in South Africa